October 30, 2001

Jerrold M. Post, M.D.


The following text is a transcript of Dr. Post's presentation at the New York Academy of Medicine.

What manner of men are these, living in American society, for years in some cases, aiming to kill thousands while dying in the process? Surely, one would think, they must be crazed psychotics; no normal person could do such a thing. But in fact, the al Qaeda terrorists were psychologically “normal.” By no means were they psychologically disturbed. Indeed, terrorist groups expel emotionally disturbed individuals – they are a security risk.

In many ways, these new terrorists shatter the profile of suicidal terrorists developed in Israel. Seventeen to twenty two in age, uneducated, unemployed, unmarried, the Israeli suicide bombers were dispirited unformed youth, looking forward to a bleak future, when they were recruited, sometimes only hours before the bombing. The group members psychologically manipulated the new recruits, persuading them, psychologically manipulating them, “brainwashing” them to believe that by carrying out a suicide bombing, they would find an honored place in the corridor of martyrs, and their lives would be meaningful; moreover, their families would be financially rewarded. From the time they were recruited, the group members never left their sides, leaving them no opportunity of backing down from their fatal choice.

The values communicated to the recruits by the commanders are revealed in their answers to questions posed in a series of interviews of 35 incarcerated Middle Eastern terrorists, who agreed to be interviewed in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. Twenty of the terrorists belonged to radical Islamic terrorist groups – Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. The psychologically oriented interviews attempted to understand the life history socialization, and recruitment. They were asked to explain their attitudes towards suicide, which the Koran proscribes, and whether they had any moral red lines in terms of numbers of casualties and extent of destruction. Their answers are revealing.

One interviewed terrorist took umbrage at the term “suicide.” “This is not suicide. Suicide is selfish, reflects mental weakness. This is istishad.” (martyrdom or self-sacrifice in the service of Allah)

One of the commanders interviewed was Hassan Salame, commander of the suicide bombers who carried out the wave of bombing in 1996, which precipitated the defeat of Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the election of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Forty-six Israelis died in the bombings. Salame is sentenced to 46 consecutive life sentences. Concerning suicidal terrorism, he said: “A suicide bombing is the highest level of jihad, and highlights the depth of our faith. The bombers are holy fighters who carry out one of the more important articles of faith.” Another commander asserted: “It is suicide attacks which earn the most respect and elevate the bomber to the highest possible level of martyrdom.”

Asked how they could justify murdering innocent victims, another interview subject bridled: “I am not a murderer. A murderer is someone with a psychological problem; armed actions have a goal. Even if civilians are killed, it is not because we like it or are bloodthirsty. It is a fact of life in a people’s struggle – the group doesn’t do it because it wants to kill civilians, but because the jihad must go on.”

Asked whether there were any moral red lines, another leader responded: “The more an attack hurts the enemy, the more important it is. That is the measure. The mass killings, especially the suicide bombings, were the biggest threat to the Israeli public and so most effort was devoted to these. The extent of the damage and the number of casualties are the primary importance. In a jihad, there are no red lines.”

The attitudes reflected in these statements characterize radical Islamic terrorists in general. But there is a striking contrast between the Israel suicide bombers and the nineteen terrorists who carried out the attacks of September 11, an unprecedented act of mass casualty terrorism. They had lived in western society, in some cases for many years, exposed to its freedoms and opportunities. Many were older, in the mid-thirties or late twenties. Several received higher education. Several came from financially comfortable middle class families in Saudi Arabia. They blended in with society, eschewing the dress, customs and personal grooming of transitional Muslims. And yet, on the appointed day, like the Manchurian candidate, they carried out their mission to hijack four airliners, and give their lives while killing nearly 6,000.

During my service, as expert witness in the trial of Osama bin Laden terrorists convicted for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, I obtained a copy of the al-Qaeda operations manual. It is a remarkable document, which goes a long way towards explaining how they were able to maintain their cover, in the United States, “the land of the enemies.” Instructing their agents in Lesson Eight, Measures That Should Be Taken By The Undercover Member: the lesson instructs the members to:
1. Have a general appearance that does not indicate Islamic orientation (beard, toothpick, book, (long) shirt, small Koran)
2. Be careful not to mention the brother’s common expressions or show their behaviors (special praying appearance, “may Allah reward you,” “peace be on you,” while arriving and departing, etc.)
3. Avoid visiting famous Islamic places (mosques, libraries, Islamic fairs, etc.)
The explanation offered to “An Important Question: How can a Muslim spy live among enemies if he maintains his Islamic characteristics? How can he perform his duties to Allah and not want to appear Muslim?” is compelling.

“Concerning the issue of clothing and appearance (of true religion), Ibn Taimia – may Allah have mercy on him – said, “If a Muslim is in a combat or godless area, he is not obligated to have a different appearance from those around him. The Muslim man may prefer or even be obligated to look like them, provided his actions brings a religious benefit… Resembling the polytheist in religious appearance is a kind of “necessity permits the forbidden” even though they (forbidden acts) are basically prohibited.” Citing verses from the Koran, the instruction in effect says that Allah will forgive you for not living the life of a good Muslim, for it is in the service of jihad.

As I have come to understand them, these terrorists differ strikingly from the suicide bombers of Israel. Fully formed adults, they have internalized their values. They are “true believers” who have subordinated their individuality to the group. They have uncritically accepted the direction of the destructive charismatic leader of the organization, Osama bin Laden, and what he declares is moral is moral, indeed is a sacred obligation.

What matter of man can inspire such acts? How could the son of a multi-billionaire construction magnate in Saudi Arabia become the leader of this powerful radical Islamic terrorist organization? A leader does not become a leader until he encounters his followers, and Osama bin Laden’s leadership experience during the struggle in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion was assuredly a transformational experience. Ascetic in his life style, often living in caves, the extremely wealthy Osama bin Laden gave generously of his fortune, building hospitals and clinics, purchasing weapons and ammunition. Inspirational in his rhetoric, he won the adulation of his Afghan freedom fighters. Surely to defeat the Soviet Union superpower (ironically with significant aid from the United States) confirmed Allah was on their side. But with the departure of the Soviets from their Vietnam, bin Laden was left without an enemy. Returning to Saudi Arabia, he was distressed, indeed incensed, to find American troops based on the sacred Islamic land “of the two cities” (Mecca and Medina). And he seamlessly transferred his enmity to the United States, initially seeking only to expel the American military from Arab lands, but later expanding his target to include all Americans.

In the 1998 fatwaj, Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, bin Laden declared: “In compliance with God’s order, we issue the following fatwaj to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words Almighty God, “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.” We – with God’s help – call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.”

It is not bin Laden but God who has ordered religious Muslims to kill all the Americans; God for whom bin Laden speaks with authority. There is not an action that bin Laden orders that is not couched and justified in language from the Koran.

There has been a series of triumphs for bin Laden – Khobar Towers, the first World Trade Center bombing, the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, and now, the most spectacular terrorist act in history, the events of September 11, an act of mass casualty super-terrorism. Osama bin Laden seems to be on an expansive roll with messianic grandiosity, ever expanding his vision. While President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have taken pains to clarify this is not a way against Muslims, but a war against terrorism, seeking to frame this as a religious war, bin Laden had now laid claim to the title of commander-in-chief of the Islamic world, opposing the commander-in-chief of the Western world, President George W. Bush in a religious was. Alienated Arab youth find resonance in his statements, and see him as a hero.

And this is the real challenge. Osama bin Laden may be eliminated and the al-Qaeda network rolled up, but the path of anti-Western radical Islamist extremism is increasingly attractive to alienated Islamic youth. Terrorism at heart is a vicious species of psychological warfare; it is violence as communication. Smart bombs and missiles will not win this war. The only countering the distorted extremist rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and radical Islamist clerics that rationalizes violence with verses from the Koran. This will be a long struggle. And key goals in this struggle are to inhibit alienated Muslim youth from joining the ranks of extremism, to not see violence as the only pathway. Most importantly, support for this dangerous movement must be reduced, so that radical Islamic extremism is marginalized, its leaders delegitimated.